If the fourth estate is on the ropes—beaten and bloodied by the economic realities that come with delivering news in the social media (and ad block) era—then the movies, especially big, bright, fictional Oscar-bait movies, haven’t found out yet. Part of this is a fear of “bloggers,” part of this is a clear sympathy for portraying (mostly male) journalists as heroes, brave people bucking the system across the board. There are the occasional outliers—Shattered Glass (the story of fabulist former-New Republic associate editor Stephen Glass, starring Hayden Christensen)—but beyond the depths of television and documentaries, like the fifth season of The Wire (where Tom McCarthy, the director of Spotlight, played the resident fabulist journalist), and Laura Poitras’ gripping documentary on Edward Snowden, Citizenfour, pop culture is invested in portraying ink-stained wretches as noble fighters for the truth.
McCarthy’s Spotlight functions as an argument for the worthiness of shoe-leather reporting and the necessity of the fourth estate, which can expose the hypocrisy of other institutions, itself. McCarthy takes a measured, careful approach to the story’s explosive source material: In 2002, The Boston Globe's Spotlight team, an investigative unit of three reporters and one editor, broke the story of the Catholic Church’s decades-long history of child sexual abuse and its extensive, disgusting, hush-hush cover-up, which stretched from then-Boston Archbishop Cardinal Law all the way to the Vatican. The team won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003, but the real effect of their work rippled throughout the greater community of Boston and beyond. If you grew up Catholic in or around Boston, if you knew people who had been altar boys, if your priest left suddenly after two years, you were affected by this story. If you were Catholic, your faith in the Church as an institution that protected and served its people was in doubt.
As someone who was affected by this story (and, full disclosure, a frequent contributor to The Boston Globe from 2006–2008), I was particularly curious about how McCarthy would approach this as a movie. There’s a maudlin version of this movie somewhere, for sure, but McCarthy makes a brilliant choice to focus on the journalists, showing the process, the gruntwork, the endless hours that the Spotlight team—reporters Sascha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams), Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and their editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton)—spent building their case, watching it transform from one implicating a handful of bad apples to a scathing indictment of a corrupt system. Early on, a character mentions that Spotlight “can take a year” to write something. I nearly swooned at how luxurious and exotic that sounded.
The investigation begins with one tiny question, from the Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber): why hasn’t the paper followed up on the case of John Geoghan, a priest who had been accused of abusing young boys? The answer, from the Globe’s Ben Bradlee, Jr. (Mad Men’s John Slattery, who should be in every movie set in Boston) isn’t satisfactory. While information and exposés had been coming to the Globe’s offices, the newspaper’s staff had looked the other way, unsure that there was a big story here. The paper had its fair share of Catholics—both local boys and girls made good and lapsed-Catholics—and taking on the church felt beyond their scope. Yet Baron persists, quietly and sincerely. An unmarried Jewish man, he’s an outsider in the clannish hills of Boston. He tells his reporters to sue the church in order to see some locked papers.
Spotlight tells its story through the perspectives of the journalists on the Spotlight team. The process of journalism is paramount, and, smartly, the emotion (and a realistic portrayal of Boston’s culture of parochialism and tight-lipped New England politesse) creeps in to the edges of the film—the ruined lives, the questions of faith, the shocking amounts of silence in the service of corrupt institutions. The Boston Globe’s offices are rendered in shades of beige and grey, with unflattering florescent lighting and dirty Dunkin Donuts cups; the charismatic, good looking actors go full journalist in ill-fitting pleated khakis. The internet looms at the edges of the film—there’s a showy shot of a billboard saying AOL—but this nod feels a bit circumspect, considering the effect the Internet would have on papers like the Globe.
With a smart script from McCarthy and Josh Singer (who worked on The West Wing and The Fifth Estate), Spotlight follows each reporter, moment by moment, as they find documents, as they talk to higher-ups in institutions or other chummy public spheres, whether it’s a golf game or a Red Sox game. The reporters listen: McAdams especially is open and vulnerable, providing comfort and support for victims who give devastating testimony. “How do you say no to God?” someone asks at one point, concluding that “it’s not just physical abuse, it’s spiritual abuse.”
We learn bits and pieces of each reporter’s modest life. Rezendes lives in a shithole apartment, and is something of an outsider, both Portuguese and from East Boston; Pfieffer lives with her religious nana in Dorchester or South Boston, and she doesn’t see her husband as often as she’d like to; Robinson, a alumni of the all-boys Boston College High School, across the street from the Globe offices on Morrissey Boulevard, ends up with personal attachments to the case.
McCarthy has always been a smart and humane filmmaker, from The Station Agent to The Visitor, to Win Win, with only one stinker on his resume—last year’s The Cobbler, with Adam Sandler, about a cobbler who can literally walk in other people’s shoes—and the quiet, All the President’s Men-ish approach he brings to Spotlight means that it builds and builds in power and expects the audience to do the work. The movie’s an ensemble piece, building up its characters slowly and carefully, giving each actor a chance to shine. More importantly, it’s a movie that’s invested in listening.
It makes for moving cinema, for stellar newspaper cinema, and when the credits rolled at my screening, the crowd gasped at the closing statistics, showing the true range of communities affected by the church’s sexual abuse cover-up. It showed the powerful work that these journalists did. I can’t even remember if the credits mentioned that the Spotlight team won the Pulitzer Prize, as it was clearly overshadowed by the importance and the reach of their work. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
And yet there was a feeling that stuck with me after the film. It was a stirring movie, with only a touch of hagiography. Out of the Globe Spotlight team, three are still there, even though its newsroom has been cut by a third and these days, the paper is owned by John Henry, the owner of the Red Sox. In the negative space, Spotlight is a film showing the last gasp before “an American tragedy that’s happening before our very eyes,” to use McCarthy’s words after the 92Y screening. It’s a film about people trying to do good work in the fourth estate, and these days, there are far fewer opportunities for journalists to do this kind of work and lead a modest, comfortable life. That’s a melancholy fact, and one that makes Spotlight its own relic, frozen in time and rendered in sepia.